Barrick Gold Corp. founder Peter Munk had a vision for his company. Barrick's new chairman John Thornton has another one.
Less than a year on the job as chairman, Mr. Thornton appears to have killed Mr. Munk's dream of turning Barrick into a giant diversified mining company, and plans to forge a deep business relationship with China are no longer on the table.
Instead, Mr. Thornton wants the world's biggest gold producer to return to its roots when it was a nimble operator with an entrepreneurial spirit, a streamlined corporate structure and a pristine balance sheet that earned a top credit rating.
Barrick, like the rest of the gold industry, was forced to clamp down on expenses when bullion began plummeting in 2011. Under Mr. Munk and previous management, Barrick had started becoming leaner by selling and suspending expensive operations and shrinking production.
But Mr. Thornton suggested Barrick had lost its way over the past decade and is pushing the company back to its "original DNA."
Gone are the layers of managers between Barrick's executives and the 19 mines that it operates. Barrick's Toronto headquarters is now a skeleton crew of 150, compared with 500 in its heyday.
Plans to boost copper output or expand into another commodity – a goal that Mr. Munk and Mr. Thornton appeared to share at one time – have been set aside.
"First and foremost our focus is gold. We have no plans to diversify into other metals and we have no plans to add to our existing copper position," Mr. Thornton told analysts on a call to discuss year-end results.
Mr. Thornton and his new executive team repeatedly stressed that Barrick was focused on a handful of mines in the Americas, particularly in Nevada, the home of the company's best mine, Goldstrike. The company said it would get rid of any asset that does not deliver a 10- to 15-per-cent return on investment capital.
So far, Barrick has put one of its Australian mines and a Papua New Guinea mine up for sale. Other assets will likely be put on the market as the company aims to reduce its debt by $3-billion (U.S.) this year.
When asked if Barrick would consider raising funds through another share offering, similar to what it did in 2013, the company said that was a "distant" idea.
"Nothing is off the table but we definitely will not be selling anything that isn't the full value," Kelvin Dushnisky, Barrick's co-president, said on the call.
The company dismissed thoughts of big merger. "In terms of transformational acquisitions, that is not an area of focus," Mr. Dushnisky said. Last year, Barrick tried to merge with Newmont Mining Corp. to combine their operations in Nevada. But the deal blew up with each side blaming the other for the failure.
As for China, "We are in no hurry to do something, if we do anything at all. We want to do the right thing and take our time to do it," Mr. Thornton said. "I want to emphasize, don't hold your breath for that because it will be a long time."
Mr. Munk chose Mr. Thornton, a former Goldman Sachs president, in part for his ties to China. The former banker spent years building relations with some of the highest government officials there, first when he was Goldman Sachs' emissary and then as a director at Beijing's Tsinghua University.
It is unknown whether Mr.Thornton's back-to-basics strategy will work, but investors like what they see so far. Barrick shares rose more than five per cent in Toronto Thursday. TD Securities upgraded its recommendation on Barrick to a "buy" from "hold."
This week, Barrick wrote down the remaining value on its troubled Lumwana copper mine in Zambia – a fitting close to the company's ill-timed foray into copper. Barrick got Lumwana through its $7.3-billion (Canadian) acquisition of Equinox. The purchase was part of Barrick's plan to diversify. But instead it has been written down entirely and has contributed to Barrick's nearly $13-billion (U.S.) debt burden.
The Lumwana loss along, with charges on some of Barrick's other mines, brings the total amount of writedowns for last year to $3.4-billion and adds to the $11.5-billion in charges incurred in 2013.
That led Barrick to report a loss of $2.9-billion in 2014 compared with a loss of $10.4-billion in the previous year.